“Give me a word.” This is what novices or spiritual seekers would ask of elders in the early monastic tradition. The “word” offered was most often a line of scripture; the goal was for the seeker/student to put the biblical word into practice in daily life. As we move from Lent into the Great Fifty Days of Easter, we will encounter Jesus in our Gospel texts each week and collectively ask to be given “a word” not just to ponder, but to practice in our lives. Words like “peace,” “abide,” “love,” “forgive,” “witness,” and even “eat” are worthy of sustained practice. Join us as, together, we seek to let the Word speak to us and through us.
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, May 16, 2021, Ascension Sunday. “Give Me a Word” series.
Text: Acts 1:1-11
It’s a time of transition. Things have been painful—lots of injustice, death, grief, confusion, and fear. And then hope appears—concrete reason for hope appears!
That’s our story! It’s our story right now as we turn the corner from this past 14 months of multiple pandemics and begin to receive information allowing us to begin mobilizing activities that have been off-limits for so long. It’s also the story we receive today in scripture.
The followers of Jesus have been through it! They experienced so many highs and lows on the journey with Jesus. They watched as he was humiliated and killed. They thought he was going to be the one to sit on the throne of David in Jerusalem, to fulfill a promise to restore Israel’s political power—to free the people from colonial, imperial subjugation. And those hopes seemed to die along with Jesus who’d inspired, taught, encouraged, empowered and mobilized a whole movement. But then, hope reappears! Jesus is back, resurrected, and, as it says in Acts 1:3, presents himself alive and speaks about the kindom of God for 40 days.
Notice that even after all this has transpired, the people were still singularly focused on what they’d always been focused on: “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Another way to say it—are you going to finally give us back what we lost, the old way of being? They were looking back and looking only at their own tribe, their own people. They seem to have missed Jesus’ consistent focus not on the restored kingdom of Israel but rather the vision and practice of the Kindom of God. Jesus doesn’t give them much of an answer to their specific question, but instead gives them this word: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) Short hand for this: You your call is to be a witness to EVERYBODY, whether or not you like them, trust them, or even know them.
Now, if I’d been in that group, I would have had lots of questions. // And I would have been out of luck. Because just then, a fog, a cloud rolls in (the presence of God often shows up in clouds) and Jesus is lifted out of their sight. He’s gone. Again. And there are no clear answers. Just Jesus’s direction to wait on Holy Spirit. Just wait for the promise: Spirit…power…
The disciples’ hope gets interrupted by the unforeseen complication of Jesus’ leaving and the aggravating reality that things are NOT going be as they were in the past, that the future is yet uncertain, and that they—Jesus’ followers—are gonna have to figure out what to do on the other side of waiting.
No wonder they didn’t know where to focus. No wonder they needed to be reminded by the mystery men in white to come back down to earth. Because all that stuff is difficult to deal with. And, wow, does it feel resonant with where we are as a congregation and people of faith in this moment.
First of all, we’re tired. We’ve been through a lot—some of us more than others, but all of us have been through it. Our emotional, physical, and spiritual reservoirs are low. Patience is likely thin. Many of us are languishing. I confess I am in that boat—just not fully “on my game!” Some of us are depressed or experiencing high anxiety. Many are grieving losses of family and friends due to COVID or other causes—most of whom we’ve been unable to memorialize and celebrate in traditional ways. We’re faced with a politicized public health crisis that has complicated our ability to trust official communications. And I could go on and on with the varieties of experiences that contribute to the challenging state of our collective mental and emotional health in this present moment.
And now: HOPE! We are hearing that masks can come off if we’re vaccinated and religious communities can gather without restrictions on numbers and on it goes.
It is absolutely understandable that many of us are singularly focused on getting back to church, getting back to the old, familiar ways of gathering, and worshipping. What’s to stop us?
I realized this past week that the shift in message and guidance feels a bit like whiplash—from high alert and multiple safety protocols, to no holds barred. I will admit that, as a leader, it is pretty disorienting. I’ve been trying to stay grounded in the values that have guided us so well through the pandemic—prioritizing health and safety, following the science, and discerning what it means in each phase of the pandemic to love God and neighbor.
To that last point, here are several things for us to keep in mind. We know that there are some who’ve been vaccinated for months while others have yet to be able to get vaccinated. And, as will be true in any human community, there are a variety of levels of risk tolerance or aversion among us. Some folk are finding it very anxiety producing to re-engage after the relative quiet and stillness of the past year, others were ready to fling themselves into the crowded human spaces months ago. All this to say, it’s important to remember that how we are feeling or needing is not necessarily how others are feeling or needing.
Another thing to consider is that some things will be different as we return to in-person worship. And much of what, exactly, will be different is still up in the air because plans are not yet finalized around all the details. Believe it or not, there are so many details to consider, discern, and plan for—because we do try to figure out how to love our neighbor in this context, to sort out how to do justice and practice radical hospitality…
And, since we have valued keeping everyone protected, our staff, committee chairs, outside contractors, and the like have not been in the building except in highly limited ways and only to assure that our beloved spaces were OK over the better part of the year. So at this point, there are some repairs and systems that need care prior to our full return—both for safety and to support a robust hybrid—that is, in-person and digital, Foundry community.
It may be difficult for some of us to imagine—because it’s not readily perceived— just how critically important and significant the call is to set some new priorities that celebrate and connect with our growing digital community whose presence blesses our worship and ministry from places all over the country and world. //
Just as with the original disciples in our text, what for some may be a “hope high” gets interrupted by Jesus’ uttering the word, “wait”—and his unwillingness to look back to an old, limited vision but instead saying, “witness” beyond your well-known community. And we, like the first disciples, are confronted with the aggravating reality that things are NOT going be exactly as they were in the past, that the future is yet uncertain, and that, on the other side of waiting, we are gonna have to figure out what to do and how and when to do it.
And all of this from a place of depletion.
Except Jesus is never one to leave us without help. The promise is that Spirit will give us power to do what we are called to do! And this is our WORD for today: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you!”
Spirit will give us power to be patient with one another.
Spirit will give us power to think beyond our own comfort or needs as we try to love our neighbor.
Spirit will give us power to confess and to forgive one another when the stress, exhaustion, and struggle leads us to miss the mark.
Spirit will give us power to be creative and careful and efficient in our re-entry plans.
Spirit will give us power to be open-minded about changes in our shared life that are required for the next season.
Spirit will give us power to pitch in to help with emerging needs as we re-engage in person.
Spirit will give us power to support one another in our various places of pain and struggle.
Spirit will give us power to be gentle with ourselves when we mess up or feel negative or afraid or unmotivated.
Spirit will give us power to witness in old and in new ways to the power of resurrection life, the power of God’s saving, new life-giving love, the power of Jesus’ embrace that draws the circle ever wider.
A wider circle, as we know full well at Foundry, doesn’t mean that we lose our place, it simply means that we get to share life with even more members of the Beloved clan. Spirit gives us power to do that! Thanks be to Jesus for the promise. Thanks be to God for this Foundry community in which—through every change and challenge—we get to do the hard, holy work of loving God, loving each other, and changing the world.